Notable Women of Hastings – Battleaxe on parade…

No, I’m not one of the notable women…. Last night I gave a talk to our WI group on the subject, so thought I would sum it up in this post.  I still am terribly busy. We’ve had friends Sue and Graham to stay,  last week I slaved all day at a big WI do at Great Ote Hall, over in Wivelsfield, which totally wore me out. Been to a party, had to work on a poem for Stanza poetry group and I have to sort a whole edition of the East Sussex WI News before we go away to Italy on 28 September…

One of Marianne North’s beautiful botanical paintings

     Back to the subject in hand. Battleaxe is fine about doing talks – I
enjoy it, but I still hate the technology. Ugh – wrestling with laptop
and projector. How often do the wretched things go wrong?
In the nineteenth century, Hastings was full of women of independent
means and still more independent minds. Apparently it was one of the
very few places in the UK where women outnumbered men. Why? Lots of
well-to-do women came for their health, and lots more came to work in
the hotels, sanitoria and boarding houses that housed their better-off
     Just as it is now, Hastings was a quirky,
free-thinking place that attracted oddballs… Some women came because
they had heard of/were friends with one of one of our most notable
residents, Barbara Bodichon (1827-1890), a pioneer of the Women’s
suffrage movement. I’ve written a post about Barbara before – here is the link – so I won’t get into her life again.

Barbara Bodichon

     I looked at three other suffragettes, Muriel Matters (1877-1969), Marion ‘Slasher’ Richardson (1882-1961) and Elsie Bowerman (1887-1973). All these women came from wealthy families – they had no need to work. They all had unusual upbringings, and, only the briefest and most unconventional involvements as regards intimate relationships.
    The name Muriel Matters is well-known to Hastings residents because the Hastings Borough Council offices have been re-named after her. (Why? I’m a great defender of the Council but surely they could spend our money on better things…).
    She was actually Australian, and is best known for her publicity stunts promoting women’s suffrage: chaining herself to the grille that fronted the Ladies’ Gallery at the House of Commons, for which she got sent to Holloway, and flying in an airship – or ‘dirigible’ as she called it (I love that word) across London.

Muriel sets off in her dirigible

    She planned to drop leaflets from the dirigible onto the King’s procession as he went to open Parliament, but the thing only had an engine about the size of a sewing machine, was blown off course, and they ended up in a tree near Croydon…. Muriel married in later life, and lived her last years in Silchester Road, St Leonard’s.
    At least  Muriel sounds a pleasant person, unlike the next suffragette, Marion ‘Slasher’ Richardson. Her antics earned her extreme notoriety, and few now know about her, or that she lived out her retirement in Hastings – in St James’ Road, down by Alexandra Park. Marion was one of the most violent and militant of all suffragettes. She regarded her mission as a ‘holy crusade’, with force-feeding and imprisonment as incidental suffering that added nobility to her cause. These days she would be regarded as a terrorist extremist.
    In 1914 Mary strode into the National Gallery with a meat cleaver hidden up her sleeve, and slashed one of the world’s most famous paintings, the ‘Rokeby Venus’ by Velasquez.

Mary is arrested at the National Gallery – and the damaged painting

She said:

‘I have tried to destroy the picture of the most
beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for
destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history.’

     This earned her the nickname ‘Slasher Mary’, but her activities in the 1930s made her more notorious still.  It is a popular misconception that suffragettes were politically left-wing. Some were, but not all. Mary joined Oswald Mosley’s fascist New Party, and became the Women’s Organiser of the British Union of Fascists. She was a great admirer of Mussolini, and wrote extensively for the fascist press, interpreting her fascist politics as the logical outcome of her life as a suffragette.

Fascists in training…. Mary is standing at the back.

     Next, Elsie Bowerman. Her father, a property magnate, owned a chain of drapers’ shops in Hastings, and died young, her mother had lived in Sinnock Square. Elsie spent much of her life living in London Road St Leonard’s in the company of her mother. She went to Girton College Cambridge – founded, of course, by Barbara Bodichon.

Elsie Bowerman

     Her biggest claim to fame is not her suffragette activities but that along with her mother, she was a Titanic survivor. Both were in the infamous lifeboat number 6 that left the doomed ship with very few people aboard, who then refused to take on more. They were rescued by the Carpathia.
      She worked and toured the country with the Pankhursts. In 1917, she witnessed the Russian Revolution first hand, in St Petersburg. After the war, she became the first female barrister to work at the Old Bailey, and worked with the United Nations to set up their Commission on the Status of Women.

      In Elsie’s
letters and other documents there is no hint of a liaison or intimate
relationship with anyone. One day she told her ground floor tenants that she
was having her flat refurbished because a ‘close lady friend’ was coming to
live with her. Soon afterwards, they were shocked to find her sobbing on the
stairs: her friend had died suddenly.

     Politically, she was very right-wing. 
     She felt
driven to educate people in (conservative) politics and economics, to encourage
individual responsibility and enterprise, and to oppose socialism and
communism. In 1920 she co-founded the 
‘Women’s Guild of Empire’, which was eventually to boast 40,000 members in 30
branches. Elsie was honorary secretary for nine years and edited the Guild’s
journal The Bulletin (whose slogan was: ‘Women Unite to save the Nation’). The
Guild believed that strikes caused misery and unemployment and that unions
should keep out of politics. The Guild came to an end in the 1930s.

    Elsie is the only one of our Notable Women to be buried in Hastings Cemetery – here is her grave. Muriel Matters had her ashes scattered there, but there is nothing to see.

Elsie’s grave in Hastings Cemetery.

The next woman, Dr Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) lived the final years of her life at Rock House, in Hastings Old Town. She moved here because she was friends with Barbara Bodichon, but despite her astonishing acheivements, only just scrapes onto our list because apparently she thoroughly disliked Hastings and its inhabitants.

Dr Elizabeth Blackwell

       She qualified as a doctor in America – the first  woman ever to do so, and in England she set up a woman’s hospital, working with Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Garret-Anderson and Sophia Jex-Blake. However,  Elizabeth had a ‘difficult’ personality, and soon fell out with these other female medical pioneers – and, in fact, she fell out with most people…..
       Her only real love was her adopted daughter/companion/servant/friend Kitty Barry, with whom she spent most of her adult life. Kitty was a penniless orphan, and Elizabeth never allowed her to develop her own interests or to meet others her own age.

Elizabeth and Kitty in Hastings

     Elizabeth died in Hastings, but didn’t want to be buried here. Her grave is in Kilmun in Argyllshire. After Elizabeth died Kitty moved up there to be close to her grave.
     Next, artist Marianne North (1830-1890).

Marianne North painting in some distant place…

     Marianne was born at Hastings Lodge, now part of the convent complex in Old London Road. Her father, the weathy Frederick North, was a well-respected politican and MP for Hastings. Although Marianne was a childhood friend of Barbara Bodichon, she never took an interest in politics.
     Truly, Marianne’s heart belonged to her father. She described him as ‘from first to last, the one idol and true friend of my life.’  This level of mutual devotion did not do much for Mrs North, who died early. Marianne commented:

“…On the 17th of January 1855 my mother
died.Her end had come gradually; for
many weeks we felt it was coming.She
did not suffer, but enjoyed nothing, and her life was a dreary one.She made me promise never to leave my

     Marianne never had to worry about money, and after an early attempt to become a singer, opted to spend her time painting. She travelled all over the world with her father, producing the most beautiful botanical paintings, and continued travelling, alone, after he died. Here are some examples of her work.

     She paid for the foundation of the Marianne North Gallery in Kew Gardens, to exhibit her paintings. It still stands much as she designed it, and Battleaxe really must visit it….

The Marianne North Gallery at Kew Gardens

     Her travels in remote and inaccessible places affected her health and she died aged 60. After her death, her sister had this to say:

“…The one
strong and passionate feeling of her life had been her love for her
father.When he was taken away she threw
her whole heart into painting and this gradually led her into those long
toilsome journeys.They no doubt
shortened her life; but length of days had never been expected or desired by
her, and I think she was glad, when her self-appointed task was done, to follow
him whom she had faithfully loved…”

     Finally, no account of women in Hastings could leave out Catherine Cookson (1906-1998).

Catherine Cookson

    Born on Tyneside
in 1906, she was brought up in great poverty. By 1990 she was Britain’s 17th
richest woman, and in the mid-90s she was the country’s most-read author,
writing nine out of ten of all borrowed library books. When Dame Catherine
died, in June 1998, she had completed 103 novels, sold over 120 million books
worldwide and had £20 million in the bank – all of which went to charities.

   She was brought
up by her illiterate and uneducated step-grandfather, her grandmother Rose and
the alcoholic woman she initially thought to be her sister, Kate Fawcett. It
was only when Catherine was seven that she discovered that Kate was actually
her mother.

childhood was deeply scarred by abuse, violence, alcoholism, shame and guilt,
wounds she carried all her life and which came across so many times in her
novels. She always had negative, self-destructive tendencies that damaged both
her personality and her relationships with other people.

   Although she left school at 13, she was an avid reader and writer, and was determined to better herself. She soon discovered this would involve leaving Tyneside.

     In 1929 she got a
well-paid job as head laundress at Hastings Workhouse in Frederick Road, Ore. She
took lodgings in Clifton Road, nearby.

liked Hastings, describing it later as “another world, in which everything
moved at an easy-going pace and no one looked poor or even drab”. 

Catherine with inmates of the workhouse

      Catherine became close friends with a masculine
Irish woman, Nan Smyth, and in 1931 they started sharing a flat in West Hill House in
the Old Town. Although it was unmentionable at the time, clearly, Catherine was living a bisexual life. Then, Catherine invited her still-drunken mother
Kate to move in as well. This was a mistake.

      She took out a mortgage on a large house, The Hurst, in Hoads Wood Road. It became a
combined old people’s home, lodging house and nursing home, run by herself,
Kate and Nan. Not surprisingly, Kate and Nan were very difficult to live with…

      However, in 1937 Catherine
met Tom Cookson. It was said to be love at first sight. Tom said: “My life only
began when I met her. Everything stems from that.”He was a Maths teacher at Hastings Grammar

Catherine and Tom in later life.

left her job at the workhouse in July 1939, and married Tom in June 1940 in St
Mary-Star-of-the-Sea Church. Their first baby was premature, and born dead. They lost three more
babies in the next four years. Catherine had missed family life as a child, and
now she could not create her own family. This led to many
years of severe depression and mental anguish.

     Tom rescued
her from this and helped her  to start writing as
therapy. She joined the Hastings Writers Group – which still survives today. Battleaxe joined this group when she first came to Hastings…. see this post, one of many.

     They moved to a smaller house, Loreto, in  St Helens Park Road.


      Talking to the WI, it was interesting to hear how many women had direct memories of Tom and Catherine. Despite her diffcult personality, she was remembered as a kind and considerate person who did much to help others.

      In 1976 Catherine and Tom moved back to Tyneside. By this time she was known around the world as an author. In 1976
she was awarded an OBE, and was made a Dame in 1993. But her health was bad.
She had five heart attacks, a major operation, pneumonia, vascular disease and
anaemia. In her last years she was nearly blind.

      Although, undoubtedly, Tom’s life with Catherine was not easy, he always
loved her, and he died of a broken heart just 17 days after her death.

          Thanks to all the writers and biographers whose work I found on the internet.




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